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Leigh Brackett, The Secret of Sinharat

I've been reading Leigh Brackett again lately, since I picked up Haffner Press' latest volume of her short SF works, Shannach - The Last: Farewell to Mars. (See the next issue of Chunga for my review of that.) There are still a number of her novels that I haven't read, and amongst those is the 1964 Ace Double comprised of The Secret of Sinharat and The People of the Talisman. Both of these are expansions of novellas about Eric John Stark that were originally published in the magazine Planet Stories.

The Secret of Sinharat is an expansion of "The Queen of the Martian Catacombs", first published in 1949. I've read the novella version, although I'd forgotten some of the plot details. I'm not really going to focus on the differences between the novella and (short) novel, although Wikipedia has a nice comparison. What stuck with me from the novella was a description of a kiss of two people whose lips are cracked and peeling from desert exposure. It's one of the most disturbingly erotic images Brackett ever came up with.

The Eric John Stark stories borrow heavily from Edgar Rice Burroughs. Stark is a sort of Tarzan character, and Brackett even uses the phrase "thin veneer of civilization" (directly borrowed from the Tarzan books) to describe Stark. He is prone to a beserk animalistic fury in which language gives way to inarticulate growling. Also, the catacombs in this story lie below a ruined Martian city, and the few scenes that take place in them feel very much like those in the passages below ruined cities in Burroughs' A Princess of Mars.

In fact, the tone and details of this story feel almost completely borrowed from elsewhere. Brackett's Mars isn't just borrowed from Burroughs but from Middle Eastern adventure stories with their desert setting. There's even a tribe of Martians called Shunni -- a name melding Shiite and Sunni -- and there's a city named Barrakesh, etc. It was pretty common in the pulp era (and probably still today) to base alien cultures on Islamic ones. (The Fremen in Dune are another obvious example.) One of the amusing second-order aspects of this in The Secret of Sinharat are the frequent references to eerie piping flutes and skirling flutes, which evoked for me the blasphemous flutes of H.P. Lovecraft, which I've always taken as a xenophobic description of Arabic instruments.

The science fictional crux of The Secret of Sinharat is an ancient Martian gizmo that allows the transfer of personalities between bodies. A modern Martian tribal leader is offering people immortality through this device if they will join him in a jihad to unite the various Martian factions by conquering them. Stark quickly discovers that the device is a fake, but then he more slowly discovers that a real version is being used by somebody else.

What's interesting about Brackett's treatment of the device and its implications is that it is shown to be something that old people use to take over the bodies of young people, and thus it's a way of achieving immortality by murdering (or severely truncating the life of) another person. This then becomes the moral crux of the story, which is also connected to the larger political question of what it means to unify by conquest. (The political aspect of this story could be read as a critique of the first three books of ERB's series, in which John Carter unites Martian factions through war.) Brackett shows the desire for immortality to be a kind of vampirism, but in the expanded version of the story, perhaps because she was now fifteen years older herself, she's less judgmental of the fear of death that drives it. The most addictive substance turns out to be life itself. As Wikipedia notes, characters who were villains in the earlier version become more tragic in the later version.

Stark himself doesn't appear to fear death, but he's enough of a primitive (in Brackett's concept) to appreciate that fear. This allows Brackett to embody her moral ambivalence to dramatic effect. Thus the story may be something borrowed, but it's also something blue -- the Mortality Blues. Lurking beneath this melancholy tune, as with much of the best science fiction since at least H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, is the great abyss of time, which oversees the death of even planets.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 3rd, 2012 11:00 pm (UTC)
I would assume that given writing for the pulps meant writing quickly in order to earn sufficient for rent and groceries that the borrowing of colour and settings was common practice. It wouldn't need to be entirely within genre either so while Burroughs' Mars was probably Leigh Brackett's source deserts were a pretty common setting for all sorts of adventure stories.

In regards to skirling flutes however while I will grant you that this was probably in imitation of Lovecraft I doubt he had the Arabs in mind. Lovecraft's inspiration for blasphemous flutes was much more like to be the Pan pipes, the multi-barreled flute played by the Greek god Pan. Pan and his pipes was a common symbol for paganism and in one form or another turned up frequently in fiction. In particular Lord Dunsany (whose fiction Lovecraft was especially fond of as you know) featured the flute music of Pan in his novel THE BLESSING OF PAN as a sort of mind altering substance. Given this obvious tradition Occam's Razor states that this is where those blasphemous flutes most likely came from.
Aug. 3rd, 2012 11:10 pm (UTC)
That's a very good point, especially because Lovecraft connects the blasphemous flutes to madness, as I recall, and Pan was known to drive people mad -- hence "panic".

I hadn't heard of The Blessing of Pan. Is it a fantasy?
Aug. 7th, 2012 12:59 am (UTC)
THE BLESSING OF PAN apparently has fantasy elements but perhaps not enough to make it a full blown fantasy. I've not read it myself as I rather suspect a whole novel of Dunsany's writing style would be a bit much for me. I tend to read Dunsany one or two short stories at a time. The reviews however suggest that Pan is an offstage character in THE BLESSING OF PAN, luring the villagers back to paganism by playing his pipes outside the village. On the other hand I see the this novel wasn't published until 1927, which is perhaps a bit too late to have an influence on Lovecraft. Not that this precludes Dunsany as being a source as I'm certain I've encountered similar references in his other fiction (I think wild pagan music is an Irish thing).
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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